4 rescued unhurt after small-plane crash near Skilak Glacier

Devin Kelly

Four men were rescued unharmed after their plane crashed at the base of Skilak Glacier on the Kenai Peninsula late Tuesday, authorities said.

Pilot Donny Joachim, 37, of Soldotna and three passengers -- Levi Sutton, 25, and Logan Sutton, 22, both of Soldotna, and Reid Nelson, 19, of Cokato, Minnesota, -- were flying in a Cessna 172 and heading back from a sightseeing trip when the plane's engine apparently lost power, authorities said. None of the four men were injured.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash. Chris Shaver, an investigator with the NTSB's Anchorage office, said the NTSB spoke to the pilot Wednesday morning and determined the crash was an accident.

"The pilot said he did have an engine issue, and did lose power to the engine," Shaver said. "That's something that, obviously, once we get the plane in, we're going to take a closer look at it."

Shaver said the pilot was working to gain special permission from Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to drive a motorized vehicle into the refuge and recover the plane.

When rescuers arrived at the crash site, the plane was flipped over, half in a stream and half on the gray glacial silt, said Capt. Aaron Zamora, the mission's combat rescue officer and a member of the 212th Rescue Squadron.

The plane, which was entirely intact, is bluish in color and was blending in with the silt, Zamora said. But the stranded men had lighted a campfire, which is how the rescuers were able to spot them, he said.

It was unclear exactly when the plane went down. But after the crash landing, the passengers and the pilot climbed up the valley to get reception on their cellphones, and were able to text family members to ask for help, Zamora said.

About 8:26 p.m., Logan Sutton's family contacted Alaska State Troopers, said Beth Ipsen, troopers spokeswoman. At 9:10 p.m., the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center requested help from the Alaska Air National Guard.

The Air Guard sent an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter from the 210th Rescue Squadron at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, the statement said. The helicopter was carrying a team of Guardian Angel rescuers from the 212th Rescue Squadron.

When the helicopter landed, the men had already packed up all their materials, including jackets, blankets and sleeping bags, and were in good spirits, Zamora said.

"They were happy to see us," he said.

The men were flown to Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna and released about 11 p.m. in good condition, the Alaska Air National Guard said in a statement Wednesday.

"In this case, the occupants were lucky to have cellphone service to get out a text message," Senior Master Sgt. Robert Carte, superintendent of the AKRC, said in the statement.

"As always, we encourage pilots to follow FAA regulations by flying with the required survival gear, but adding to their personal kit as necessary to accommodate for the number and ages of potential survivors."

Reach Devin Kelly at dkelly@adn.com or 257-4314.